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More specifically: Two of my book series' main characters are (temporarily) diplomats. It's unavoidable to the progress of the plot. But diplomacy is inherently slow and boring. So, the general question is: How does one handle boring but necessary scenes? Both general and specific answers welcome. Examples from successful books also welcome.

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Diplomacy is a high stakes game of wits. You can make it extremely interesting! Unless of course your diplomats are negotiating with the EU the appropriate length and curvature of imported bananas, I think your readers will be sufficiently interested. You have the power, as a writer, you can make it interesting. It's only boring if you make it. –  Dan Hanly Nov 13 '13 at 23:07
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Absolutely - I love writing diplomatic scenes in my stories. It's harder than plain old good action, but more thrilling, more challenging and more enthralling. A battle of wits, where hidden behind gentle smiles and mild frowns lethal blows are exchanged. Mild innuendos carrying lethal threats, entangling the opponent into their own lies, entrapment into a cage built of unfulfillable promises - it makes for some of the best scenes I'd ever written! (my other favorite genre is non-verbal dialogue, where two sides just exchange facial expressions and minor gestures, without ever speaking.) –  SF. Nov 14 '13 at 11:50
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@SF. Then you will love the Foreigner series. –  Lauren Ipsum Nov 14 '13 at 16:09
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Lots of great answers and comments here, with useful suggestions and examples, which I greatly appreciate. I will probably use bits and pieces of many people's ideas, and may get some of those books to read also. But, it's time to pick an "accepted" answer, and Dale Emery's answer was most useful for my particular needs, so I picked it. Please feel free to keep adding info and voting. Lauren Ipsum might get that badge for submitting a really popular non-accepted answer. :-) –  dmm Nov 15 '13 at 19:18
    
@dmm I have one of those for the purple prose question. My favorite gold badge so far. :) –  Lauren Ipsum Nov 19 '13 at 20:43

7 Answers 7

up vote 8 down vote accepted

In addition to the always wise advice to omit the boring parts...

  • Summarize the boring parts in a short paragraph. Maybe simply refer to them in passing.
  • Complicate the terms of the negotiation until the negotiation becomes interesting.
  • Add conflicts or problems until the scene becomes interesting. These conflicts need not be related to the subject of the negotiation.
  • Add a ticking clock. The ticking clock need not be directly related to the subject of the negotiation.
  • Disable the viewpoint character in some way, such as by distraction, injury, fatigue, urgent concerns elsewhere, or some other condition that diminishes the character's abilities.
  • Increase the stakes of the negotiation.
  • Complicate the relationships among the negotiating parties. Ex spouse. Former boss. Parent or child. The guy who shot the viewpoint character's father and got away with it.
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"These conflicts need not be related to the subject of the negotiation" might be the critical trick. The scene can do double duty: necessary plot progress via the diplomacy, and non-boring character development simultaneously. –  Russell Borogove Nov 14 '13 at 18:46

If you want examples of successful diplomacy, try CJ Cherryh's Foreigner series, which I think is up to 15 books so far. The main character, Bren, is a diplomat between humans and the non-human species who are native to the planet where the humans crash-landed. Positively fascinating. Hard going at times, but I was never bored.

And diplomacy is not inherently boring if the stakes are sufficiently high. If the failure of diplomacy is war, genocide, invasion, name your armageddon, then jeez, the reader is going pay attention.

Also, don't make everyone invested in the outcome.

  • What if your diplomat is a "cowboy" who's overly impressed with himself? Or she's a stickler for the rulebook no matter what? (You can find both of those in Star Trek, I think.)
  • It's been quipped about a certain political stalemate in our own time that one party "never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity." What if one of your diplomats is an idiot, or an obstructionist, or a religious nutcase? (Martin Sheen's president in the movie of The Dead Zone.)
  • What if your diplomat is a sentient AI come to test your species before annihilating it? (Battlestar Galatica, the Ron Moore version, the miniseries.)
  • What if your diplomat doesn't speak the language, or the translator disappears? (Also Trek, "Loud as a Whisper.")
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Star Trek - Captain Kirk (The Original Series) is a "cowboy", Captain Picard (The Next Generation) and Captain Janeway (Voyager) are different types of rule-sticklers. Picard finds loopholes, Janeway skirts the intent by following them to the letter. –  Izkata Nov 14 '13 at 2:47
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@Izkata The "stickler" I was thinking of was the guy from "A Taste of Armageddon" (where Scotty says "the best diplomat is a fully-loaded phaser bank"), but you make good points about Picard and Janeway. –  Lauren Ipsum Nov 14 '13 at 10:46
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You should also check out non-fiction books on diplomacy; I recommend David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace (Britain and France haggling over how to divvy up the Middle East after WW1) or Robert Service’s Spies and Commissars (Soviet foreign relations immediately after the Russian Revolution). –  Seth Gordon Nov 14 '13 at 16:08
    
This was exactly my first thought when I read the question :D –  Michael Borgwardt Nov 19 '13 at 17:22

If the scene is boring, it’s not necessary.

Think about what you actually need to convey to the reader to move the plot forward, write something interesting that delivers that necessary information, and skip everything else.

This may be a good time to break the “show, don’t tell” rule. “Eight hours and two liters of vodka later, Ambassador Königsberg agreed to waive the Union’s trade rights on Svalbard VII in exchange for a military base on Copernicus Prime and five tons of unobtainium.” Carriage return, hash mark, carriage return, onward.

If the scene is necessary because of some shift in a character (e.g., the Ambassador decides that he wants to betray the Union), then find some interesting event that tips the balance in the character’s mind, dramatize that event, and summarize what comes before and after.

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Yes, this. You can see some good examples of this toward the end of 1634 (one of the books in the "ring of fire" fantasy series), where we get the sense of what the characters are doing but not all the boring details. We see the prime minister's mind wandering during negotiations, meaning we get snippets of conversation mixed with his thoughts. His thoughts are more interesting than the negotiations, so the author went with that. :-) –  Monica Cellio Nov 14 '13 at 2:58

As I understand it, most authors of bestsellers ruthlessly cut out boring scenes. I've seen comments (from such authors) that if they find a section of their own writing boring, they expect readers to find it still more so. (This does not keep some bestselling authors from padding their books with boring stuff.)

One way to avoid the problem is to tell what other things the characters are doing during the boring interval in their lives. Consider a few brief sentences about the diplomat's day of work, followed by a few paragraphs or pages about their dissipated nights or intellectual evenings or telephone calls they make during breaks. Or consider briefly listing a few extremely boring items, then saying “Such were the highlights of the week”.

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The other answers have shown how diplomacy can be interesting.

But lets assume your question means that it is important to your plot that your characters are diplomats, but that their work as diplomats is not important to your plot, for example because their role as diplomats allows them to easily cross a border or gain access to some place or information or simply gives them a cover story.

This is similar to a character sleeping: its what they have to do, but its not usually interesting from the point of the plot and you wouldn't bore the readers with telling how your character lays down, pulls up the blanket, closes his eyes, starts to drift off listening to the wind, what he dreams about, how he moves in REM phases, how the light changes with the clouds moving across the moon etc. You just briefly state that they sleep, no more.

With everything else, like diplomacy, you can do the same:

After he was done, John went to bed. When he got up in the morning ...

Pete and Paul went to meet the ambassador. When they came out of the embassy ...

You might include the topics discussed, the outcome of the conversation and anything else in such a short summary, or simply have the visit to the ambassador happen between scenes and let your characters discuss the meeting:

"Okay, let's go see the ambassador."

*

When they came out, Bob and John looked at each other and shrugged. "Well, that was probably the most boring hour in my life."

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I'm partial to a bored diplomat:

"... would such a ratio be acceptable?" The question hung between the diplomats like a point of contention. As Julie began to form her answer she wondered what ratios had to do with the color of her nail polish and the remembered they were talking about commodities, Peruvian coffee or was it pork bellies? Oh shit!

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haha, see there's another option I hadn't considered! –  dmm Nov 16 '13 at 9:55

Michael A. Stackpoles trilogy "Age of Discovery" has a lot of fighting, but many of the characters engage in diplomacy. Diplomacy is a major part of the plot and actually driving the plot (conflicts between bureaucracy and the government, conflicts between nations, conflicts inside the nation). I thought a lot of this made the world seem more real, and especially gave the characters opportunity to think and develop.

The diplomacy basically happens between enemies. All parties stick to the protocol, but find ways to insult each other. Conspiracy is another type of diplomacy. Everyone has their goals, everything is trickery. Sometimes the cards are laid open, but only when the other has no other choice than accepting an offer. I feel there is nothing more boring than stereotype characters. The "bad guy" is not bound to be evil, the "good guy" is manipulating as well, bureaucracy does their thing and engages in conspiracy in the worst possible way, too. The characters draw conclusions and learn, develop. Growing/developing characters are interesting.

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Could you add something about how he makes this work? How does he make the boring parts less boring? Thanks. –  Monica Cellio Nov 14 '13 at 16:06
    
Well the diplomacy basically happens between enemies. All parties stick to the protocol, but find ways to insult each other. Conspiracy is another type of diplomacy. Everyone has their goals, everything is trickery. Sometimes the cards are laid open, but only when the other has no other choice than accepting an offer. I feel there is nothing more boring than stereotype characters. The "bad guy" is not bound to be evil, the "good guy" is manipulating as well, bureaucracy does their thing and engages in conspiracy in the worst possible way, too. The characters draw conclusions and learn, develop –  kutschkem Nov 15 '13 at 9:21
    
Cool. Could you edit that into your answer? (Comments are meant to be temporary, for getting clarification and stuff like that.) –  Monica Cellio Nov 15 '13 at 13:55

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